Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2018-19, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2018-19 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the Buffalo Sabres.
2018-19 Buffalo Sabres Preview
Buffalo finished last in the Eastern Conference in the 2017-18 season, marking the fourth time they finished last in the Atlantic Division in the past five seasons. In that one stand-alone season, they finished next to last. Needless to say, they’ve had their fair share of struggles in the past few years and last year wasn’t any exception.
The team had high hopes headed into last October after hiring new head coach Phil Housley and new general manager Jason Botterill. Sadly, the roster still wasn’t deep enough to justify any playoff hopes. They relied heavily on players like Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly to make up for a very weak third and fourth line, as well as a poor defense. Still, the players who carried all of the load couldn’t do enough. Eichel only recorded 64 points, 25 being goals, and led the team in both stats.
The Sabres went on to score the fewest total goals in the league. To add insult to injury, only two teams allowed more goals throughout the year. Every aspect of their team saw some degree of failure, including starting goalie Robin Lehner who went 14-26-9 on the year.
Botterill made good work of his first full summer as the Sabres general manager. The team had one of the most productive summers, and arguably one of the best despite dealing away O’Reilly. They brought in eight new faces that will be in the NHL this season, including four players from the St. Louis Blues.
Botterill started off on the right foot when he drafted Rasmus Dahlin. In Last Word on Sports’ 2018 NHL Draft Grades article, Ben Kerr said, “[Dahlin] is every bit as good a prospect on defence, as Connor McDavid was as a forward in 2015.” And he’s not wrong.
Dahlin was a star in Sweden’s top league last season, scoring 20 points in 41 games despite being one of the youngest in the league. Aside from Dahlin, Buffalo also picked up promising prospects in the form of Mattias Samuelsson, a strong defensively-minded defenseman, and the USHL rookie-of-the-year, Matej Pekar. With the Muskegon Lumberjacks, Pekar had 54 points in 56 games over the course of his rookie season. Now 18, he is committed to Miami University.
The Sabres started their long list of deals in the 2018 off-season before the draft, though. On June 14, they traded 23-year-old Hudson Fasching to the Arizona Coyotes. In return, they brought in Boston University’s 2017-18 captain, Brandon Hickey, and 30-year-old Mike Sislo. Hickey, a top line defenseman for the Terriers last season, scored 14 points in 35 games. This was one less point than he produced in his junior year. Now graduated from college, 22-year-old Hickey will likely start his 2018-19 season in the AHL.
13 days later, the Sabres made their next big trade. They sent a conditional 2019 pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick. Sheary, as a middle-of-the-lineup forward, scored 30 points in 79 games last season. Hunwick scored 10 points in 42 games on defence.
Four days after that trade came the biggest deal in the 2018 off-season. Buffalo said goodbye to centre Ryan O’Reilly, shipping him off to St. Louis in exchange for Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson, a 2019 first-round pick (top-10 protected) and a 2021 second-round pick. The deal was expected, but still jaw-dropping when it was announced.
Though the Sabres lost one of their best scorers in recent years, they brought in a lot of offensive depth. It was the biggest step in the team’s efforts to add depth to their lineup. They also took a big step in padding their future, picking up another 2019 first-round pick and Tage Thompson, the 20-year-old who was picked in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft.
They weren’t done yet. Carter Hutton, the Blues backup goalie who shocked the league with an impressive stat line in the 2017-18 season, agreed to a three-year deal with an annual cap hit of $2.75 million.
Then, to complete their off-season, they dealt away prospect Cliff Pu, a 2019 second-round pick, a 2020 third-round pick and a 2020 sixth round pick for the Carolina Hurricanes star left-winger, Jeff Skinner. Skinner had 49 points in 82 games last season. If he would’ve registered one more point, he would’ve tallied his fifth NHL season where he scored at least 50 points, out of only eight seasons. Skinner is a goal-scoring machine, something that he proved in the 2016-17 season when he netted 37 goals in 79 games and tied his career-high of 63 points. Beside stars like Eichel and Okposo, these numbers could jump even higher next year.
The Sabres accomplished their goal of flushing out their offence this off-season. This group looks deeper than any offensive lineup they’ve had in recent history. If all goes according to plan, every player is capable of scoring at least 30 points this year.
Old habits are hard to get rid of, though. Buffalo will still rely on their top line to do a lot of the scoring this season, but the trio seems a lot more capable of that. Skinner, as previously mentioned, could see a burst in scoring this season. Playing next to Eichel, one of the best young playmakers in the league, and Reinhart could end in fireworks for Buffalo.
The middle of the pack seems relatively set in stone. Casey Mittelstadt will get a lot of trust this year, after posting 30 points in 34 games at the University of Minnesota and 11 points during the seven-game U20 World Junior tournament. On his wings will be the high-scoring Okposo and Sobotka, who is an iffy character but could do great on this line. If he seems to struggle, Sheary and Pominville are great candidates to take his spot.
The fourth line could be very shaky. Tage Thompson is likely the only player guaranteed a spot on the line. Larsson and Rodrigues have both been fringe players for the team in recent years. Breathing down their necks are players like C.J. Smith (44 points in 57 AHL games last season) and Andrew Oglevie (39 points in 36 games with the University of Notre Dame last season), both 23 years old. Both players are highly-valued prospects in Buffalo that are very likely to break the NHL lineup this season.
Buffalo’s defence is where they show their past-selves. Dahlin is going to be a huge addition, but he still has to adapt to the North American game. This could take a month or two, or the entire season. While the team waits for him to become a star in the NHL, they need the rest of their defence to perform at a high level. Unfortunately, they don’t have a very elite group.
Ristolainen, easily the team’s top defenseman at this time, hasn’t shaken the issues that have plagued him his entire career. Last season, he posted an impressive 41 points. This marked his third consecutive season of scoring over 40. His defensive game still wasn’t as strong as it should be. Hopefully being paired with a player like Scandella continues to help his case, but it’s still hard to keep faith in the 23-year-old Ristolainen.
Aside from the top line, the Sabres defence could be a mesh of anything. Bogosian could be a good player to pair with the young Dahlin. Bogosian is 6’3″, 220 pounds and is one of the team’s most physical defensemen. However, both Hunwick and Beaulieu could accompany Dahlin’s offensive style of play a bit better. Pairing one of them with Dahlin would leave a bit to be desired on the defensive side of the puck, though.
Expect Brendan Gule to finally crack the roster. He would go on the third pair, once again, matched up with a veteran.
Goaltending is the biggest worry for Buffalo. Carter Hutton will likely be their top guy, but Hutton isn’t an NHL starter. He has been a career backup but blew up with the Blues last season. The biggest difference between the two teams, though, is their defence. Buffalo let in more goals than almost the entire league last year. While some of that can be blamed on Lehner’s poor goaltending, a lot of blame falls on the team’s ability to play defence. Hutton is facing a much, much bigger challenge in Buffalo.
Ullmark isn’t much of a sure thing either. He’s only 25 years old and has been brewing in the minors for the last few years. After posting a record of 21-12-4 in the AHL last season, Ullmark is a likely candidate for the backup role. With that being said, his career in the NHL hasn’t been too profound yet. His record so far is 9-13-2, spread across 26 career games played. He’s unproven at this level, to say the least, and this season will be the biggest change he’s had so far to fix that. If he plays well, he could steal the starter’s spot by the end of the year.
Players to Watch
Thompson was brought into Buffalo as apart of the O’Reilly trade. He’s a tall and strong power-forward with a great shot and even better knowledge of the game. He has all of the makings to be a star in the NHL but didn’t get the chance to shine in St. Louis. With the Blues, he was one of many young players that could shape up into stars. When he started to show signs of struggle, he was quickly replaced by Samuel Blais.
In Buffalo, that won’t happen to Thomspon. He’s a star prospect for the team and, unless his play is atrocious, will likely be in the lineup for the entirety of the season.
He scored 32 points in both his freshman and sophomore year of college at the University of Connecticut. Last year, he played a total of 41 games with the Blues and scored nine points. That wasn’t promising enough for St. Louis, who sent him down to the AHL where he played 30 more games and netted 18 points.
His play in the AHL was good enough last year. He didn’t show he was going to be a star in the NHL this next season, but he earned a fourth-line role. As this season goes on, he has all the tools to gradually increase that role. A powerful center like him is highly desirable in today’s league, which means the Sabres are likely to be very patient with the young Thompson.
Mittelstadt was the best prospect for the Sabres before they drafted Dahlin. He was picked eighth overall in the 2017 NHL draft, the same draft Thompson was picked in. Since then, Mittelstadt has played one season with the University of Minnesota. During that season, he scored 11 goals and 19 assists, for 30 points in 34 games. After Minnesota missed the playoffs, Mittelstadt joined the Sabres for the end of the year. He played six games in the NHL and scored five points.
Simply put, Mittelstadt is the perfect offensive package. LWOH’s Ben Kerr describes him by saying “Mittelstadt is an outstanding skater. He has excellent top-end speed, as well as the quick first step, and strong acceleration to take advantage of it.” He also highlights his excellent stickhandling ability, vision, playmaking and shot. After a promising first few games last season, Mittelstadt is ready to make a big impact this year. He’ll be given a lot of responsibilities by the team, likely averaging over 14 minutes of ice time per game. If he is able to flaunt all of his skills and combine them with the strong offence that Buffalo has, he could shape up to be a legitimate rookie of the year candidate.
There’s one guarantee for Buffalo going into this season. They won’t place in the bottom two of their division again. Other than that, their fate is pretty ambiguous. They’ve done all they can to improve their offence after scoring the fewest goals in the NHL last year. Their defence and goalie depth still plagues them though, despite picking up one of the best defensive prospects since the turn of the century.
Buffalo will likely end up battling for a Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference this season. They’ll rely heavily on outscoring their opponents, as opposed to trying to play conservatively. It also wouldn’t be surprising at all to see the Sabres make a few more trades throughout this season to help their back end. They have an abundance of great prospects and top picks that would be worth a lot in trade talks and could bring in a better starting goalie or more defence. If they do, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Buffalo make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 2010-11 season.
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